The World of Medical Non-fiction
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At the start of the year,if you had told me that the genre of book I would most enjoy in 2015 would be ‘medical non-fiction’, I would have asked you to get your head checked out. Thankfully, with neurologists such as Henry Marsh and endocrine surgeons such as Atul Gawande, any mental mishap or hormonal imbalance that caused you to utter such a preposterous statement can be easily rectified.
The genre of medical non-fiction does feel like it is a burgeoning niche in the world of books – or maybe, upon reading several, I am just more primed to notice them. I’ve read four over the past year, and each has been fantastic in opening my eyes to the reality of life behind the surgery doors.
‘Do No Harm’, by the aforementioned Henry Marsh, was the first in my medical odyssey, charting the triumphs and pitfalls of being a brain surgeon. Marsh did a brilliant job of tempering the increased ability to tackle major medical issues with the reality of the random nature of chance, luck and the human body. He’d move from uplifting stories about successful surgeries, to the aftermath of operations that had not gone as smoothly. No matter how many years of experience Dr. Marsh had, things could, and still would, go wrong. Even more fascinating were his stories of working in Ukraine, where the surgeries were completed under extreme constraints of equipment, yet there were still people trying to do their best by their fellow man. Heartening, as well as harrowing.
My interest in ‘Do No Harm’ led me to ‘Being Mortal’, the newest book by Atul Gawande. As this year progressed, I read ‘Complications’ and ‘The Checklist Manifesto’ also. Every opportunity to check out Gawande’s books, I’ve swallowed up voraciously. Without wanting to play favourite, ‘Being Mortal’ is still probably the most thought-provoking of the three, yet they all offer something to the discerning reader who wants to peak behind the curtain.
Gawande does a wonderful job of not only being informative, but genuinely engaging in the way he tells the narratives of his books. Whether it is the changes needed in care for the elderly in ‘Being Mortal’, or the desire to try and utilize a checklist to strengthen teamwork and eliminate mistakes in the operating theatre in ‘The Checklist Manifesto’, his descriptions of the space he occupies in the world of medicine are as riveting as any page turning crime thriller.
As would be expected of a surgeon, Gawande is clearly very intelligent, and his research around the topics of each novel encapsulates the wider world effortlessly. For example, ‘The Checklist Manifesto’ includes the story of the Miracle on the Hudson, a crash landing where no-one was hurt due to the use of a simple pilots checklist. In using it to prove his point about the effectiveness of this administrative task, he also develops the narrative hook that all good novels require. In showing us the bigger picture, he makes his work seem all the more vital.
To finish, it would be remiss not to consider some of the questions thrown up by ‘Being Mortal’. It is Gawande’s most personal book, with the backdrop of a father who is beginning to suffer the travails of old age. As we begin to elongate life for all, what needs to happen to the care offered to the elderly? How can we make the end of life as fulfilling as the previous years? How can we manage an ageing population in an area where money and investment is sparse?
If anything, Gawande is asking the questions that should be at the forefront of our future plans for progression as a community and society across the world. You can’t ask for much more in a book.